With the city on lockdown and summer camp closed, there were no opportunities for in-person dances, which were frequent at camp and quarterly in the city. Just before Easter in 2020, Joe Antcliff, aka JoeJoe the DJ and a Recreation Supervisor with AHRC NYC’s Camping and Recreation Department, reunited people with disabilities via Zoom. Many of the people AHRC NYC supports were unable to work or attend employment or day programs due to the pandemic’s restrictions.
Creating a Sense of Belonging
It’s pure joy for attendees – rocking to tunes from Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, the Village People, and many more. Each evening ends with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” of course.
“That’s when all the parents come out and dance with their sons and daughters. The parents wave,” Antcliff says. “It’s just a really nice atmosphere, so positive. We’ve created a sense of belonging.”
Having not seen one another in person for nearly two years, attendees can hardly contain their excitement. They are unmuted briefly at the start and the end of the evening. In between, there’s music, an ongoing chat, and Antcliff highlighting different participants via Zoom.
The nonstop chat is another form of connection.
“Ivanna, you are my friend forever,” Eddie writes.
Phone numbers are exchanged, friends greet one another. On this night, Ned gives an update on his uncle’s dog Levon: “He, unfortunately, didn’t make it.”
After several condolences, Ned divulges that Levon wasn’t drinking enough water. “It was kidney failure,” he writes. “Now let’s dance!!”
Despite being virtual on a computer, everyone can feel the energy, Antcliff says. “It has broken down that sense of isolation from the lockdown.”
Volunteer Shares Talent from Across the Country
Chloe Baker, a young singer and songwriter, had no connection to the disabilities field when she volunteered to conduct mock interviews with the people AHRC New York City supports. When she mentioned she was a singer, her role quickly changed.
While she performs once per week via Zoom, Baker clearly is at ease with her guitar and piano or singing to instrumental versions of songs people request. Her audience is very accepting and doesn’t seem to notice that she was up early in her California hotel room, opposed to her music studio.
“Chloe is a good singer,” said Geriel, who attends the weekly session. “I like when she uses her instruments.”
“When they start dancing, that brings me so much joy,” Baker said. “When I find a song they connect with, it’s the best feeling.”
Baker finds herself raising awareness about mental health issues through her songs. “I know I can speak to this,” she said. “I really just want to make people feel empowered and not ashamed of parts of themselves they don’t like. Accepting those things are only going to make us stronger.”
Aimee, who enjoys listening to Baker’s music, has another benefit.
“Music makes me feel good,” she said.
Volunteers From Near and Afar
Zoom, Facetime, and Microsoft Teams have become part of many nonprofits’ vocabulary in the last nearly two years.
“Technology had made a huge difference in our ability to recruit more virtual volunteers than we ever could have for in-person programs,” said Karen Zuckerman, Director of Volunteers and Corporate Engagement.
Currently, AHRC NYC has between 60-80 volunteers and programs. The programs range from mock job interviews with volunteers from NYU Law School, cooking with Common Threads, fitness classes, to wrestling talk groups, art classes, and much more.
Teaching Cartooning in a Fun Way
It was Thanksgiving week and the theme in Alan Bessen’s cartooning session was “Any Bird but a Turkey.”
And there was Bessen drawing Tweety Bird, Woody Woodpecker, and Daffy Duck, to name a few. As he draws on his whiteboard from his Queens, N.Y., apartment, 22 individuals from AHRC NYC sketch from home via Zoom. Bessen has volunteered with AHRC NYC for about two-and-a-half years.
“We have those classic cartoon eyes, oval with dots in them,” he says, guiding his fellow artists.
Before the pandemic, Bessen would bring help sheets to guide the artists’ work on their cartooning exercise. “They would draw away and didn’t want to bother with me,” he said with a laugh. That changed once they transitioned to Zoom.
As a cartoonist, published illustrator, and teacher with 15 murals across NYC, Bessen’s passion for cartooning is clear as he works on subjects such as Any Bird but a Turkey. He tries to slow down, so the individuals participating via Zoom can follow along.
After a while, he checks on their progress – reviewing the likes of the Road Runner, Beaky Buzzard, and other feathered friends. AHRC NYC staff and Bessen praise the efforts.
Watching Bessen, it’s clear he was built for cartooning. “It’s the same thing I get out of teaching,” he said. “I love when I see people are into it like I’m into it. It helps me keep my enthusiasm on a completely pure level. It’s the love of doing it.”
For more information, visit www.ahrcnyc.org.